Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?
Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.
Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.
This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,
is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.
On its arrival, in a text published in 1494, the semicolon denoted a pause – a kind of ‘supercomma’ – before taking on a mainly grammatical function. This shift reveals the mutability of punctuation and the vexedness of its formal treatment. Though early grammarians ‘sought clarity through rules, they ended up creating confusion, and the semicolon was collateral damage’.
This had more disastrous consequences than compositional complication. Semicolon details a years-long uproar in the early 1900s over a ‘semicolon law’ that interfered with liquor consumption in Massachusetts, and a far more disturbing case involving a death sentence that hinged on the absence of a semicolon. Watson’s conclusion may unsettle some readers:
No matter how precise you are with your punctuation, and no matter how carefully constructed the legal rules for punctuation use and interpretation might be, there will almost always be a way to cast doubt on the origins of a punctuation mark, or on its original intended meaning, or on its most valid construction given its context.
Football manager Bill Shankly famously said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ The same could be said of punctuation – or indeed typography. And though I don’t share that particular passion, typography fans may savour Watson’s vivid descriptions:
Garamond’s semicolon is watchful, aggressive, and elegant, its lower half a cobra’s head arced back to strike. Jenson’s is a simple shooting star. … Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party. Gill Sans MT’s semicolon has perfect posture, while Didot’s puffs its chest out pridefully.
The longest chapter in this short book (188 pp., excluding notes) assesses examples of semicolons in literature. Though Chandler seldom deployed it in his celebrated fiction, in his non-fiction he used it discerningly – sometimes ‘illegally’, though Watson is persuasive on its effectiveness. Also featured are Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, Henry James, and Herman Melville; Moby-Dick has around 4000:
The semicolons are Moby-Dick’s joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes. … Just as sailors needed instruments to wander out past sight of shore, Moby-Dick required writing technologies that could allow it to venture out beyond the genre constraints of its time …
Watson’s metaphors are adept: a semicolon can be ‘like a stone skipping across water’, or a ‘tantalizing veil shimmering between the two halves of the sentence, showing us just enough to let us dream’. She neatly refutes the idea that semicolons are somehow elitist. And there are thoughtful, roving digressions on the value of ambiguity, the politics of dialect, and the ethics of pedagogy.
Semicolon is a lucid, learned, and entertaining monograph that offers a lively examination not only of an infamous piece of punctuation but also of the complexity and profundity of writing itself. In doing so it underscores the importance of creativity in communication and the need for flexibility in our perception of it.
You can read a sample and order Semicolon from its publisher, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, who kindly sent me a copy.